Catholic School Removes Statues of Jesus and Mary to Become More Inclusive
Removal of a number of statues and other smaller Catholic icons from the campus of San Domenico School in San Anselmo has raised concerns among some parents.
In an email to the school’s board of directors, Dominican Sisters of San Rafael and the head of school, Shannon Fitzpatrick objected to the removal of the statues and other steps the school has taken in an effort to make the school more inclusive.
“Articulating an inclusive foundation appears to mean letting go of San Domenico’s 167-year tradition as a Dominican Catholic school and being both afraid and ashamed to celebrate one’s heritage and beliefs,” wrote Fitzpatrick, whose 8-year-old son attends the school.
She added, “In our time here, the word ‘Catholic’ has been removed from the mission statement, sacraments were removed from the curriculum, the lower school curriculum was changed to world religions, the logo and colors were changed to be ‘less Catholic,’ and the uniform was changed to be less Catholic.”
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Responding to follow-up questions Monday, Fitzpatrick wrote, “There are other families having the same concerns I do. Many parents feel if the school is heading in a different direction then the San Domenico community should have been notified before the signing of the enrollment for the following year.”
Cheryl Newell, who had four children graduate from San Domenico, said, “I am extremely disappointed in the school and the direction they’ve been going. This isn’t a new thing that they’ve been intentionally eroding their Catholic heritage. They’re trying to be something for everyone and they’re making no one happy,”
Kim Pipki, whose daughter left San Domenico two years ago after graduating from ninth grade, said some of the statues were also important to families who aren’t Catholic.
“The one main statue that has everyone fired up is the baby Jesus and Mary one,” Pipki said. “It was at the center of the primary school courtyard.”
Pipki said the school had a ceremony during which children would place a crown on the statue of Mary.
“It was less about God and more about passing on some traditions,” Pipki said. “People were shocked that the statues were pitched in the basement.”
Amy Skewes-Cox, who heads San Domenico School’s board of trustees, said the relocation and removal of some of the school’s 180 religious icons was “completely in compliance” with San Domenico’s new strategic plan, approved unanimously by the board of trustees and the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael last year. She said at least 18 icons remain, including a statue of St. Dominic at the center of the campus.
She noted that it was unfortunate the removal of the statues occurred at about the same time as the unrest in Charlottesville over the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and that the issues are “totally different” and have “absolutely no connection other than it is change, and people have a hard time with change.”
Sister Maureen McInerney, prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, said she hadn’t visited the campus lately and was under the impression statues had been relocated on campus rather than removed entirely.
“I try not to get into the details of the operation. That really isn’t my place,” McInerney said. “So if there has been a reduction in the number of statues but there are still many statues around the campus, I think that would be fine.
“San Domenico is a Catholic school; it also welcomes people of all faiths,” McInerney said. “It is making an effort to be inclusive of all faiths.”
One of the strategic plan’s stated goals is to “strengthen San Domenico’s identity as an independent school” and clearly articulate its “inclusive spiritual foundation.”
San Domenico was founded by the Dominican Sisters in 1850 as an independent, Catholic school — meaning that it is not owned or operated by a parish or religious order.
“San Domenico is both a Catholic school and an independent school,” said Head of School Cecily Stock, “but what we were finding after doing some research is that in the broader community we are known as being a Catholic school and are not necessarily known as an independent school. We want to make sure that prospective families are aware that we are an independent school.”
Of the 660 students who attend the K-12 school, 121 are boarding students and 98 of these are international students from British Columbia, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mexico, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. The students attending San Domenico come from a variety of religious backgrounds besides Christianity: Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
Stock said schools operated by the Catholic Church, such as St. Isabella, Marin Catholic and St. Anselm, tend to have larger class sizes and lower tuition costs. Tuition for an incoming kindergarten student at San Domenico is $29,850.
Skewes-Cox said, “If you walk on the campus and the first thing you confront is three or four statues of St. Dominic or St. Francis, it could be alienating for that other religion, and we didn’t want to further that feeling.”
Stock said the parents of some prospective students who visited the campus expressed concern about this.
In her email to the school, Fitzpatrick wrote that she became concerned with the direction of San Domenico when it removed “first reconciliation and first communion from the second-grade curriculum,” last year.
Stock said the year before last the school began offering catechism after school and then last year phased it out entirely.
“We had very few families interested. I think last year it was fewer than five,” Stock said. “It just made sense to have the students prepare for communion with their local parishes where they would be with a larger group of students.”
Stock said, “Over the last few years we’ve had fewer Catholic students as part of the community and a larger number of students of various faith traditions. Right now about 80 percent of our families do not identify as Catholic.”
Rather than indoctrinate students in Catholic theology, San Domenico provides students with instruction in world religions and philosophy.
“It’s really about empowering each student and giving them the information so they can discover their own purpose, their own truth,” Stock said. “We believe the best way to understand your own faith is to learn about the faiths of others.”
Mirza Khan, the school’s director of philosophy, ethics and world religions, said, “The Dominican teaching philosophy is not to teach there is only one truth. It is to foster conversation, to intentionally invite in participants that have different perspectives in a very open-ended process of philosophical and spiritual inquiry. That has been a long-standing part of the Dominican tradition.”
Khan, whose father and grandfather were Sufi teachers in India, received a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion at Bard College. Before becoming a teacher at San Domenico about 10 years ago, he worked as a research assistant to a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Khan said during his time in Jerusalem he got to see first-hand how devastating it can be when religions are in conflict.
(c)2017 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
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